Book review: What We Lose

IN her debut novel, set in Pennsylvania, New York, and Johannesburg, Zinzi Clemmons takes on big subjects. 

She explores cancer, death, race, and sex in an unflinching, but not fearless, manner. She is fearful. Cancer is frightening and relentless. Dying is painful and sordid. Racism is all around. And sex can be dangerous.

Thandi, as a light-skinned African American woman, challenges the way others see her. She describes herself as a ‘strange in-betweener’, one who never feels accepted. Her mother warns her not to make friendships with women whose skins are darker than her own, stating that, inevitably, envy will lead to rancour.

As she matures, Thandi chooses white boyfriends, often freckled and/or red-haired. Clemmons doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion — that Thandi is attracted to those at the very end of the continuum between whiteness and blackness. But it may be that she would love to be, like these boyfriends, definitely something. Others are constantly confused by her appearance. Is she black? Or Spanish? Or Asian? Or Jewish? At one time or another, she is assessed as all of these. She’s told that she’s not a ‘real black person’.

In terms of the boyfriends, there are gentler passages about skin and stroking, but, on the whole, the descriptions of sex are pretty graphic. The language she uses is coarse and direct. Thandi loves sex and gets a lot of it, one way or another. It’s not a novel for the prudish.

The most important role in life is, Thandi believes, that of a mother. The account of her beloved mother’s death from breast cancer is gruelling. No detail is omitted. And the void left by her mother’s absence is at the centre of the novel. Numbly, she and her father mourn her, surrounded by dust and takeaway cartons.

In looking at motherhood, Clemmons discusses the extraordinary iteration of Winnie Mandela, otherwise known as Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who was involved, alongside the Mandela United Football Club, in the torture and murder of youths. Clemmons moralises that maternal models are inappropriate for peace-keeping.

Other examples of the real world intrude. Political events, such as Barack Obama’s election as US president, are documented.

These do not just provide a contextual time-line, but rather seem to make some sort of philosophical point about life and death in a fundamentally racist world. It’s mannered and a stretch from the overarching memorial/memoir tone of the novel.

What We Lose is, perhaps, an attempt to emulate or match Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work, such as Americanah: a love/hate song to Adichie’s two countries, America and Nigeria.

It doesn’t really succeed though, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is too much like the sort of autobiographical pieces, which have titles like ‘I Lost My Mum to Cancer’ or’ I Know What You’re Thinking When You Look At Me’, submitted to ‘true story’ women’s magazines.

Secondly, although the blurb describes the book as moving and emotional, it isn’t. The characters do not ring true. Even Thandi herself, a protagonist who is supposed to be entirely self-centred, is lacking in personality.

Finally, the prose is fragmented. The style is more blog or notebook. Chapters are so short as to be mere paragraphs. Linear chronology is sacrificed, leaving the reader floundering. It almost seems like a series of creative writing exercises has been cut and pasted.

It’s a shame, because Clemmons probably does have interesting things to say about cancer, death, race, and sex. Perhaps she needs to move away from what seems to be fictionalised autobiography.

What We Lose

Zinzi Clemmons

4th Estate, €18.19 (HB); €10.49 (PB); ebook €11.14


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